Apps

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July 31, 2015

T-Mobile to Add Advanced Messaging to its SMS Services

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According to a recent study, texting is the most used feature on a smartphone across nearly every age demographic. Third-party apps jumped on the wagon early to improve built-in SMS and MMS features and developed apps like Facebook Messenger and Apple's iMessage. Many of these apps make it easier to send large data files, communicate quicker, and confirm messages have been received. However, T-Mobile has just released a new feature for its users that may change the message game altogether, by bringing advanced messaging directly to the device.  

SMS and MMS messaging are still incredibly relevant to smartphone users despite the millions of apps now available to them. Rather than develop its own third-party app, T-Mobile has introduced software called Advanced Messaging, which is built on Rich Communication Services (RCS) and addresses many of the limitations various apps have capitalized on. The service is very democratic—while it’s currently only available on the Samsung Galaxy Grand Prime, the software was designed to work on all carriers and across every operating system. Software updates will be necessary for existing devices, but T-Mobile has said that several phones will be available later this year with Advanced Messaging already enabled. 

 

Understanding Advanced Messaging 

Advanced Messaging incorporates several features including real-time messaging, read notifications, currently typing icons, and the ability to send up to 10MB of data via text. With improved regular SMS and MMS messaging on the device itself, users won’t have to reply on compatibility or downloading multiple apps and interfaces. There’s no extra charge for the service but it does require Wi-Fi or LTE to operate the improved features—otherwise the software defaults to regular messaging.

While it is unclear whether or not all smartphones will adopt the software in the future, it’s an interesting approach to take on behalf of the user. On the one hand, the promise of a unified messaging system that operates as well as, if not better than, popular third party apps is a gift to users who would no longer have to think about availability or compatibility. On the other hand, it’s a bold move from T-Mobile that undercuts Apple’s highly integrated app-based platform that emphasizes selection and choice through a variety of different apps.

T-Mobile is not the first carrier to launce RCS, but it is the first carrier to offer it in the US. In 2012, MetroPCS, a flat-rate carrier, released RCS just prior to a merger with T-Mobile. At the time, RCS delivered features like simultaneous voice and multimedia messaging as well as social presence. The merger delivered the scale and financial resources to expand geographic coverage, as well as offer an improved selection of devices and services, so T-Mobile could compete with the nation’s larger carriers. 

Launching Advanced Messaging was a bold choice in the wake of a developing app-based mobile culture. Time will tell if the user-friendly software will proliferate or remain exclusive to T-Mobile users. 

July 28, 2015

SMS Messaging: Conversation Before Apps

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Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? For a GUI (Graphic User Interface) designer, that question is becoming more relevant as the nature of the mobile user influences app development—perhaps towards a post app world? 

That’s a scary thought for a GUI designer, or a developer who unintentionally overlooked the simple truth that text messaging is far and away the most commonly used feature on a smartphone. Almost 97% of all smartphones users engage in text messaging; this familiarity creates incredible potential for a new generation of text-based application that can solve any problem an app can solve, through a more convenient interface: the text screen. 

 

Text-Based Apps Are Nothing New

The above, however, is not a new revelation. In fact, some apps controlled exclusively via text or SMS messaging already exist. Magic, for example, can help you reserve a table, check a bank account, or buy a car, all via text between a user and a concierge (an actual human being) who assists with these requests. WeChat is another app that uses text to bypass traditional apps altogether—effectively creating a universal portal to all things mobile.

According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, across all age groups in the US, text messaging is the most popular feature used on a smartphone. In this way, life is beginning to challenge the artist; while app designers may have intended to make our lives easier by developing apps to meet out every need, at the end of the day, people are universally more comfortable texting—having a virtual conversation to get at what they want. 

There are some people, like Matt Galligan, co-founder of the news aggregation app Circa, that believe we’re headed towards an overhaul of basic software and design. Galligan feels that something called “MessageKit” will be Apple’s catchall for apps located in iMessage. Instead of opening different apps with different design characteristics and UI controls, all the apps would perform their same functions but via text command or queries inside a fluid conversation.  

Apple’s new iOS 9 has already made some considerable shifts in its latest version, one of which is prioritizing app content for Internet search queries made via mobile. While there’s nothing like “MessageKit” available quite yet, it’s an interesting theory that attempts to recognize the user’s reality in a predominantly designer-shaped mobile world. 

One foreseeable drawback is that our familiarity with texting may causes people to use these services at inappropriate times. For example, texting while driving is already a major concern in densely populated areas. Additional text-based services may further encourage our desire for instant access, even behind the wheel.  

It’s ironic that an entire generation gets labeled as ‘less socially communicative’ because it’s always on smartphones, and yet, somehow, that same generation may bring society back full circle, where the digital dialect of texting is used to reinsert what was missing from our mobile lives: conversation. 

 

 

July 27, 2015

Truecaller is Making Android SMS Messaging Smarter

 

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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draw a parallel between email and SMS messaging on a mobile device. Both collect messages from familiar and unfamiliar sources, gather spam, and offer instantaneous communication with countless people from around the world. 

At least, that’s what Truecaller noticed when it decided to launch Truemessenger, an alternative SMS messenger app for Android. The Swedish-based company recently raised $80 million in funding to further perfect this new line of communication powered by Google Inc.

 

New But Familiar Design

By connecting the proverbial dots, Truecaller is introducing a familiar system to the SMS world of communication. We’re all accustomed to filtering our emails, assigning spam when necessary and prioritizing mail in personal categories; now, Android users can operate their SMS inboxes the exact same way, making it easier to avoid unwanted spam, by verifying the identity of those who send messages. Customizable spam filters are another unique feature, as they allow inboxes to remain free of clutter and help streamline the experience for users.  

But that’s not all; what makes the app ‘smarter’ is the integration of familiar social aspects with the user’s interface. The app draws photos and nicknames from popular social media sites and adds them to contacts when they message you. The app also allows users to customize color themes. What’s more, the Swedish EDM artist Avicii created a custom ringtone for the app, as a ‘friendly favor’ to the company. 

Alan Mamedi, co-founder of True Software doesn’t believe we’ve seen the end of SMS messaging though. In fact, he believes some markets like the US and India have a long future of SMS usage ahead.

“The volumes are still huge, and no-one is tackling the problems,” he explained.

Currently, 15% of all SMS messages are reported as spam—this amounts to almost 1.3 billion unwanted messages every year.

By focusing on the user’s experience, Mamedi hopes that solving some of the basic communication problems with SMS will keep it viable in the future. 

 

SMS Competition 

But what about the competition? Unlike most app founders, Mamedi believes the company is headed in the right direction because a number of larger corporations have taken notice of the work it’s already accomplished with Truecaller and now Truemessenger. Companies like Facebook were so inspired by the company’s work that they created their own caller ID app earlier this year. Since Facebook’s Hello and similar apps have launched, Truemessenger has actually received more users by proxy. 

Currently, the app is only available in India and for Android users in the Google Play Store. Google’s operating system allows for third party SMS/messaging apps, whereas Apple’s iOS platform doesn’t—yet. 

The good news is that SMS messaging is wising up to problems faced by its users, as advertising becomes more sophisticated and deliverable on mobile devices. How long will ‘smarter’ be ‘smart enough’? We’ll all just have to wait and see. 

 

July 20, 2015

Android Leads the U.S. Market but Trails in Europe

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According to a recent report by Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, the Android OS increased its market share by 2.8% at the end of a three month period; leading the US with an overall market share of 64.9%. The first full month of sales for Samsung’s latest Galaxy device propelled the company forward year-over-year in the US. However, the same did not hold true for the EU market, where sales have slowed throughout the big five: Germany, Great Britain, France, Spain and Italy. 

According to the report, iOS users in the US began to drop off as the shares declined period-over-period and year-over-year. Meanwhile, in Europe, the demand for the iPhone 6 has been steadfast, with the latest model reaching unprecedented success in Great Britain, Germany and France. 

Android-based smartphones received assisted growth from LG, which nearly doubled its US shares year-over-year. This was not the case in Europe. Android vendors in Europe had to count on winning new users away from apple—which has seen little success. Ending in May, only 5% of new Android users switched from apple; down from 11% percent during the same period the year before. 

The Galaxy S6 has been reported as the third best-selling device in the US, just behind the iPhone 6 and its Samsung predecessor the Galaxy S5. Samsung’s year-over-year success is up as well, down only .5% compared to 1.6% in three months ending in April.

Other foreign markets are shifting as the smartphone wars wage on. Urban China, for example, has introduced a third contender to a once two-pronged industry. Currently apple leads in China, followed by Huawei and third competitor Xiaomi. The three are all within half a percentage point share of each other, though considerable differences in niche markets may explain the spread. 

In China, Apple’s sales continually come from high-income users and throughout the most prominent cities: Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. Close to 7% of apple’s total sales in China are from these affluent areas, while Xiaomi only captures 2% of this same market.  

In urban China, Huawei became the best-selling Android device brand. Thirty-nine percent of Huawei’s sales come from users with a monthly income of less than 2,000 RMBs.  

With several markets developing new infrastructure, the likeliness of new users is on the horizon in several underdeveloped countries. With Apple prices comparatively high, it’s left considerable room for competitors to come in and offer less expensive alternatives. 

July 14, 2015

Early Education Mobile App Wins $2.2 Million in Funding

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Daycare, preschool and child development centers aren’t the first things that come to mind when browsing Apple’s App store. But even early educators need and app to make their job easier, right? Why shouldn’t they benefit from mobile technology? That’s exactly what Dave Vasen, founder and CEO of Brightwheel was thinking before he developed the first app for early education providers. 

On June 17, Brightwheel—a groundbreaking mobile platform for preschools, daycares and afterschool programs—received $2.2 million in seed funding. The funding comes as the app releases its latest version for iOS and Android, which includes the addition of new features previously unavailable to the public. 

Brightwheel is the first of its kind: a free, easy-to-use mobile SAAS platform for early childcare providers. However, Brightwheel is also proving valuable to parents and guardians who struggle to stay informed about daily activities and educational progress—something Vasen was personally familiar with. 

Vasen recognized the challenges faced by childcare providers after the birth of his first child. Not being connected with his daughter during the workday was difficult for the new father; he also observed overworked childcare providers. This scene is likely familiar to parents who need childcare programs, daycares, or after school services. Many early development providers face strict regulatory systems, long hours, and an incredible amount of paperwork to manager in addition to focusing on their real job—taking care of children.  

Brightwheel helps parents and administrators stay connected; allowing teachers and caregivers to practice cohesive programs in class or at home. With Brightwheel, teachers can track attendance in multiple classrooms, record daily observations, and share photos and notes about activities happening throughout the day. Other features include paperless billing for tuition and fees, and community settings for grandparents, nannies or friends. Brightwheel is integrated for both web based and mobile access.  

The childcare market in the United States nears $45 billion each year, so it’s surprising that few tools like Brightwheel have been made available—something Vasen says he is happy to have changed. 

PRE Ventures and Eniac Ventures raised the seed capitol with assistance from CrossLink Capitol, Golden Venture Partners, Red Swan Ventures and Sherpa Ventures. 

Brightwheel is free for parents and administrators and is now available in the Apple App Store and for Android devices.  

 

June 29, 2015

Uber Goes App-less With SMS Version

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Last month, Uber and Coding Dojo hosted a 48-hour hackathon competition in San Jose—a student and alumni challenge to generate ideas that would improve Uber’s impact on the community. The winner of the contest was TextBer, an SMS version of Uber’s popular smartphone app that will allow non-smartphone users to access the service using basic text messaging.  

The idea isn’t as passé as one might think. While it’s easy to take smartphones for granted in the age of instant-access, the TextBer team focused on people who are marginalized from services like Uber due to various circumstances.  

According to an April study by Pew Research Center, only 27% of adults over 65 have smartphones; half of all adults making less than $30,000 a year are without smart devices as well. However, many of these individuals have the ability to send text messages using their mobile devices, which is precisely what TextBer aims to capitalize on in their SMS version. 

“My grandfather has Alzheimer’s,” said Arash Namvar, one of TextBer’s developers. “…TextBer allows him to easily get an Uber ride from his house to my house. It makes me feel better because he’s safe.” 

Namvar and four other creators spent several hours brainstorming the dilemma before they decided to construct TextBer for the contest, which is currently in beta and utilizing UberX car—Uber’s lower-cost product. 

 

How it Works 

Using a desktop computer, users create an Uber account with a credit card and link their TextBer account with a specific cell phone number. To receive the service, users simply text a pickup and dropoff address to TextBer. A time estimate and quote will be texted back to the user’s cell phone, at which time they can approve the message and dispatch the driver. 

 

Going Forward

The current version of TextBer is limited to UberX vehicles and SMS messaging; however, the team of creators hopes to build more features that will benefit the visually impaired and those with disabilities.  

Other features discussed may include default home settings and common location identifiers so users wouldn’t have to type repetitive information.

SMS is an affordable alternative for service-based communications, which may grow in popularity as this SMS service moves forward through production. In addition to helping users without smartphones, this service will hopefully provide a service that makes life a little easier (and safer) for those in need of a driver; regardless of age, economic status or smartphone.  

 

 

June 25, 2015

Mobile Tech & the Travel Industry: What's Hot and What's Not

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According to Euromonitor, by 2017 over 30% of online travel bookings by value will occur over mobile devices. This is thought to result from online travel companies making their apps more attractive via location services helping travelers find the nearest hotels and restaurants. Vacation booking habits have changed dramatically according to new research from BuzzCity, as there’s been a 50% increase in mobile usage by business and leisure travelers. Some 30% of these travelers use mobile devices for last-minute bookings. 

It subsequently follows that travel companies need to make certain their websites are mobile-friendly so navigation is straightforward and users can enjoy a personalized, engaging experience. Since mobile use is increasing “the norm,” travel companies that don’t capitalize on mobile friendliness will certainly lose out. Whether via mobile, laptop, or tablet, such companies must strive to create a personalized, streamlined user experience. 

Personalization is definitely key. Some 74% of online consumers admit frustration when dealing with irrelevant content, as “bringing personalization at the early stages of travel inspiration” influences browsing and subsequently purchasing decisions. 

Apps remain a vital part of the mobile device user experience, according to Google’s 2014 travel study. 

“Leisure travelers mostly book via mobile websites, while business travelers mostly book via apps – both types of booking method are still key,” the study noted. Concerning those who booked trips on a device in 2014, 45% were leisure travelers booking via a mobile site on a browser, and 55% were business travelers. 

“Getting the experience right” is also critical for travel companies in 2015 and beyond, as conversion optimization is another essential digital priority. Since so many travelers book their vacations and business trips online, there’s no room for error in regards to the booking and check out progress. Frustrating user experiences make innovative marketing strategies to drive website traffic a waste. 

Travelers increasingly want the inside scoop on a hotel or location, with the “mobile augmented reality market” expected to increase to $5.1 billion by 2016 according to e-strategy/Juniper. For example, Marriott Hotels is currently using Oculus Rift developer versions to sell honeymoon packages. It makes it possible for newly-hitched couples in New York to immediately fly to romantic destinations such as Hawaii and London. 

This year is looking to be an interesting one for the travel industry, with the “battle for bookings” comprised of much more than owning big data. It’s in the way companies interpret said data and use it to create highly-personalized, highly-convenient user experiences across all platforms.   

 

June 24, 2015

5 MMS Marketing Tactics

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MMS marketing has been around for a few years, but when it comes to launching a new product or promotion, most business still limit themselves to SMS messaging. Mobile coupons and other offers are usually plain text affairs, and the popularity of shortcodes and keywords has caused many businesses to lose sight of the bigger picture.

This is somewhat surprising given the wide availability of MMS, which allows brands to entice customers with images as well as words. If you’re interested in harnessing the power of rich media to give your mobile marketing campaign a shot in the arm, consider the following applications of MMS:

 

Show & Tell

The visual element that’s so important to advertising has taken a backseat in text message marketing. Sure, you can (and should) include a link to your website, but in the hyper-competitive world of modern marketing, the fewer steps the consumer needs to take, the better. The food industry is probably the most obvious beneficiary of image-based advertising; MMS allows you to send the 2-for-1 pizza promo deal and a tasty picture of the pie. Visual stimulus will get mouths watering far more than mere words.

 

Text to Win

Use your existing subscriber base to introduce loyal customers to new products with MMS. To generate interaction, run a competition with the product shown as the prize.

 

Text to Reserve

Again, mobile marketing tactics that use SMS messaging can be modified for MMS. If you run a restaurant, send picture messages of the latest meal specials and offer a time-limited promo deal to respondents.  

 

Text to Vote

Running a poll or survey can be more effective with MMS than with standard text messaging. Encourage subscribers to vote on which appetizer they would prefer, along with a picture of each dish. Set up keywords to represent each appetizer (WINGS/SOUP-DU-JOUR/etc) and allow respondents to vote on the nicest looking dish, or the dish they’d prefer to see on your menu. Not only will you encourage engagement by the vote, you’ll have created targeted lists of customers based on food preference.  

 

Text to Connect

Stay in touch with subscribers with the right MMS campaign and you’ll see interaction increase. As long as you offer something of value, the underlying impetus behind your campaign can simply be to remain connected with your customer base. Keep such messages to a minimum. A ‘text to connect’ picture message should only be used if you don’t have any current promos, you haven’t reached out to your contacts for a while and you can create a special offer to be included in the message.

June 22, 2015

Will Apple's Taptic Engine Make it to Mobile?

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Apple’s latest innovation is the Taptic Engine, a new feature for their smartwatch as well as the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Utilizing a research lab technique engineered 20 years ago, the technology features an electromagnetic motor that “tricks your fingers into feeling things that aren’t actually there.” This is due to the motor’s oscillation, which potentially promises a future full of smartphones and desktop trackpads where fingers are used to feel rather than touch interfaces.  

Named Force Touch, Apple has touted the technology as the "most significant new sensing capability since Multi-Touch," which foreshadows the idea of using the technology for the iPhone, etc. Its use in the MacBook trackpad, for example, presents something more sophisticated than the almost base motors used to make smartphones and game controllers vibrate.  

“Today’s Apple announcement made possible by Margaret Minsky’s lateral-force haptic texture synthesis research, 20 years ago,” former Apple designer Bret Victor wrote in a tweet. Minsky’s 1995 doctoral thesis focused on simulating texture with lateral force using a “custom software environment called Sandpaper.” Minksy discovered applying specific patterns of horizontal force to a joystick made it possible for users to “feel” assorted textures. Amplitude adjustment changed the effect, with a key point of Minksy’s work that sideways spring forces frequently feel like downward spring forces when touched by fingertips. 

 “It is, in the Apple way, very well engineered,” haptics pioneer Vincent Hayward of McGill University said of Apple’s Taptic Engine. “There’s a lot of attention to detail. It’s a very simple and very clever electromagnetic motor.” 

The potential to use the engine in a number of applications is somewhat outlined in Apple’s release notes: “When dragging a video clip to its maximum length, you’ll get feedback letting you know you’ve hit the end of the clip. Add a title and you’ll get feedback as the title snaps into position at the beginning or end of a clip. Subtle feedback is also provided with the alignment guides that appear in the Viewer when cropping clips.”

Does this mean “Bumpy Pixels” are the proverbial wave of the future? Hayward imagines a variety of possibilities. 

“It could make interaction more realistic, or useful, or entertaining, or pleasant,” he noted. “That becomes the job of the user experience designer.”

Should the Taptic Engine appear in the iPhone, the result could include keyboards where you feel the grooves in between the letters, or feel texture while skimming Instagram or playing a game. Hayward believes the iPhone potential is definitely there, it simply requires creating a motor that’s powerful and battery-efficient enough for such devices. 

“More interesting paradigms really are around the corner,” he said. “They already exist in labs. If you come to Paris, I can show you some things that you will have in phones in 10 years. Or maybe five years. Or two years, if we’re lucky.”

 

June 19, 2015

Are App Store Video Previews Worth the Investment?

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Trying to stand out from the rest of the apps for sale on the App Store presents a big challenge for app developers. The App Store currently features some 1.2 million iOS apps, with developers using screen shots and simple text to attract buyers. Videos were used to build momentum outside of the App Store, however Apple is changing that...or attempting to, anyway. 

The launch of iOS 8 meant app developers had the opportunity to upload 30-second videos to iTunes Connect, as well as other app updates and marketing materials. App Store visitors see video thumbnails, or what Apple calls poster frames, next to app screenshots. Store visitors simply have to hit ‘play’ buttons to launch a full-screen video showcasing what’s fantastic about the app.  

Videos are designed to provide visitors with a “realistic experience” regarding the app in question, and function more as demos than anything else. Music is important to the mood and theme of the video, though narrated videos and those featuring animated text and graphics are also accepted by Apple. The company does not allow personal data and real names to be used in the videos.  

This tool has been in use for nearly a year, but its effectiveness is up for debate. Creating a visually-pleasing video that really sells why an app rocks isn’t an inexpensive venture, with even basic productions very costly compared to screenshot designs. Video expense subsequently limits A/B testing for an app page, and the possibility of producing a variety of previews is limited as well. Screenshots, in comparison, are easy to create and allow app developers to experiment with different styles to determine what their target audience likes most.  

Another problem with app preview videos is the constantly-evolving nature of the industry. Even the coolest, most professionally-executed videos can become outdated in an instant, forcing developers to produce more general, less creative videos that “justify investment” and are essentially evergreen. This in combination with Apple’s video guidelines and rules presents a serious challenge to developers. 

Videos even spell a bit of doom in regard to app page conversion rates. The perfect “app page experience” is one that creates a “compelling user experience.” This means the longer a user takes to decide whether they want the app or not, the more the developer has to lose. Screenshots are subsequently the better marketing tool, as they simply provide users with specific app highlights rather than a “deep exploration” of the product. The idea is to quickly convince users to install the app, not compel them to think about it.  

If a developer does decide to create a video preview for an app, it helps to focus on two or three specific features the screenshot cannot convey, refrain from mentioning discounts or seasonal offers, and ensure content is rated 4+, or appropriate for all audiences.